Michael Carroll has been a Peace Corps volunteer, a waiter, a janitor, a writer’s assistant and a college instructor. His work has appeared in Boulevard, Ontario Review, Southwest Review, The Yale Review, Open City, and Animal Shelter, as well as in such anthologies as The New Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories (edited by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell). He collaborated with Edmund White on the suspense story Excavation for Joyce Carol Oates’ New Jersey Noir. His interviews with Ann Beattie and Wells Tower were included in the recently revamped Chattahoochee Review, where his first story was published, and where he is New York Editor. His first collection, Little Reef and Other Stories, is published by the University of Wisconsin Press.
What was it like growing up in northern Florida? What were you like as a child?
The first story in Little Reef is kind of an answer to this question. I’d been away from north Florida for years, actually a couple of decades nearly, when I got the idea of writing about my teenage years in Jacksonville, which I’d hated and felt smothered by. I’d written about that time before in earlier stories. But I began to write the newer story, “From the Desk of . . . Hunter B. Gwathmey,” a few days after my father’s lung cancer diagnosis. In the story I wanted to crowd in everything about that time but with more positive notes. I wanted it to ache with happiness; I wanted to read something to make me to ache with happiness, the way reading John Cheever can make you smile while reading about the most harrowing things. In “Gwathmey,” I just happened to leave out the painful drama, let it recede to the back and let the fun stuff, the pure longing and aspiring (the main character wants to be a writer and meet mentor types), seep to the fore. In my older stories my youthful alter ego is suffering and making no secret of it. God, how tired of that whining from myself I’d gotten by the time I was in my forties! And by then, I had been missing northern Florida, how unique the landscape is, how Southern it is, how friendly it can be.
How did you come to reside in New York? What do you love most about living there?
Running as far from Florida as I could, I’d joined the Peace Corps. I needed a living wage and health care. I was in for a couple years when I met my idol, who became my partner, who’s now my husband. Ed was living in Paris. He decided deep into his fifties to get a tenure-track job and began teaching at Princeton. When he was awarded tenure we happened upon an apartment in a neighborhood I had no idea was just about to stop being the chic gay neighborhood, Chelsea. It’s gotten more rich-people chi-chi, less gay, but I like it. I’m near Penn Station, we finally got new grocery stores and decent restaurants. We lost our fun coffee shops, I guess because those aren’t as profitable as nail salons, and the rents are high. I like my middle-age-gay-writer circle, who’ve given me a backdrop and camaraderie. I like meeting new people. It’s finally become the exciting center of hectic activity I always longed for and romanticized, growing up gay in the South and feeling lonely. Kids now don’t all have this conundrum of growing up gay and alone. I look at them coming to New York now quite confident without the same timidity in their eyes.
Did you enjoy your time in the Peace Corps? What did you learn from that whole experience?
I needed to get out and see some of the less-privileged world. The first country, Yemen, killed any last traces of religion I’d ever entertained deep into my twenties, but I enjoyed the so-called exoticness of it. I enjoyed meeting my university students and being treated well by them and their families not because I was an American but because I was a teacher. I got a privilege look into their lives, including the lives of my female students, who worked harder than the boys and wanted English language more ambitiously. And mostly their fathers wanted that, too. It was a different slice of the Muslim world than we’re coming to stereotype it as (this was all a few years before 9/11, but right before the first Trade Center attacks). The Czech Republic had its romance, there in the center of Europe. A sort of ideological burnt-over district, the Czech Republic just wanted to be a part of the contemporary acquisitive world like the rest of us. I had to deal with some student lassitude. I’d say to a student, “I haven’t seen you in a couple weeks, are you all right?” “Well,” they’d say, “I had a terrible cold.” In both countries I was aware that I was getting a unique view of humanity, for comparison and contrast purposes. Stuff I still haven’t written about, overall!
Do you ever miss teaching? What does it feel like to help others learn?
I do miss it. I hope to go back into it very soon. It was nauseating going into the class every day because I’m shy about audiences and groups I’m addressing, which is why I became a writer. But I have things to say about creative writing, and I have strategies and ideas to share. I can put the whole enterprise on a regular, everyday level that not only simplifies it but makes it seem like a worthy thing to spend time on. Creative writing, done right, is entertaining to the writer and helps us as reader and writer form ideas about human nature and the world. It comprises a special subaltern section in the department of psychology. Done right, it feels truer than everyday reality, because it forces you to look at everything differently, to slow down and take in everything in different quantities and doses. It makes the world new because it reshuffles what we already know and drops us off at unexpected places. Teaching writing is about teaching reading.
What led you to try your hand at writing?
I was held out from the first grade because I was too young to enter. My mother signed me up for book clubs and took me to the library. There was never a question about books for me. I fell into Dr. Seuss and so on while my mother watched her soaps and I got addicted to reading, which made me more advanced when I got into school but also isolated me, ironically. My teachers would send me to the library when I got done with a lesson or assignment, thus putting me on the road to more social estrangement! Writing only compounded the problem. To write you have to be alone, but I wanted to be alone, being a misfit. A big cycle, one phase feeding into the other. I never quite caught up socially, so I just kept writing, almost as a defense mechanism.
What did it feel like to see your first story published?
I was twenty-seven and had returned to Florida after grad school and suddenly there was this validation of my work on paper, in a journal. I sat down in a fast-food restaurant and wrote my parents a letter saying I was sticking with writing, because I’d been validated and the resulting text looked handsome.
What do you think it takes to make a truly good story?
Tension. The push and pull. Surprises with language and the banishment of the banal or the received language, the old tired ways of saying something. The most underrated talent or skill, if you will, is charm. Charm the reader with a fun, intriguing opening, decide what your greatest abilities are, and use those, whatever you can to pull the reader through and inspire him or her to wonder what is going to happen. Be surprising but don’t be like a chatty obnoxious guest who just won’t leave. Make them want you to keep talking to them, then get your ass out of there.
What do you love most about the act of writing?
I love not having to sweat over it, having learned that it’s an act of fun more than something as tricky as international diplomacy or the law. I like just cruising along then going back and back after finishing a piece and cleaning and straightening, like picking up the dust and scraps after carpentry and painting and making things flush and clean and fresh.
Are there any little known things about you that your readers might be surprised to learn?
That I miss the South, as much as I critique it. Even the bad guys can seem quaint, as long as I don’t turn on the news.
Do you have a dream project you’d most like to accomplish?
I’m doing it now. I’m transforming the world of my youth into a fictional place full of people I knew back then who serve often as exceptions to the rules of the social regime, the upright and correct and often hypocritical. I want to humanize that part of the world for my snobby and self-satisfied and cosmopolitan New York friends who know they have to hide their sneers from me. Some of the best writing was accomplished “back home” instead of in the capital. Thomas Hardy left London and William Faulkner spent very little time in New York.
What do you think is the key to a life well lived?
Seriously? Happiness, which comes from striving to make others happy, or feel secure or less alone. I have no spirituality left, but the best of all religions teaches service to others, which is the only source of true happiness. It relieves anxiety and guilt and proves you’re not alone.
Are you excited for the release of Little Reef and Other Stories?
Nervous, because now I’ll have to go out and read aloud from it. Wells Tower told me in an interview I conducted with him that he’d only read one review of his first book, and I’m going to try to follow this example. Unfortunately, I started to write as a loneliness strategy and defense mechanism against the sense of alienation from my peers, and now I’m stuck with the blowback, which is the desire to be loved by them.
What are you hoping your readers take away from this particular body of work?
My best intentions, my contentedness, my desire to meet them on some level and talk. Also, my lack of religion and my assertion that you can be a good person without believing in God.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
I need to revise a novel I wrote and revised once. When I work I go through each draft without looking back. Then start over at the beginning and do it all again until I feel I’m done and all the elements are proportionate and fit. The novel is about intergenerational love relationships, the usual stuff like in the second half of Little Reef. A bartender friend told me yesterday over a butt break that he’d spied the theme of the generation gap in my work, and I guess it’s all through there like he said. And I guess I’m trying to spackle that gap in.
Anything you’d like to say before you go?
Only thank you––to you, Tina, and to your readers. And have a great summer! I certainly appreciate your taking the time to do this with me . . .